Sinieka picked up an old key that lay on the rubble-strewn road. Images of the owner’s life before his bloody death on that spot flashed before her eyes and she put it in her pocket while her lunch churned in her stomach.

Between the piles of rubble no more doors remained. No more locks were needed in a world that was laid bare and broken by countless wars. Not that keys and trinkets were what the crew was after. She still preferred to think of it as cleaning up and not scavenging. She wiped her brow, feeling the grit of dust on her skin. The wind picked up and she turned her back so that the dust would not hit her face. It howled through the deserted and crumbling ruins as if crying with the voices of the dead. When it had passed, she followed the rest of the group once more, taking a few running steps as she tried to keep up with the taller members of the group.

“The colonies were supposed to be different,” she said. The rest of the crew ignored her as they picked their way between the remnants of shattered lives and skeletons of buildings. Only Roa, working next to her, bothered to speak.

“Not your history lesson again, Sinieka,” he growled as he heaved a piece of rubble out of the way. His dark skin was covered with the light-coloured dust from the ruined masonry. Rivulets of sweat raced down his temples.

“Lessons,” she said, emphasizing the plural. “Humankind has had so many close calls you’d think that we’d stop trying to wipe each other out.”

“You are talking about humans, you know,” Roa said, shaking his head. He hefted another piece of debris out of the way and stuck his head inside the half-ruined room it revealed.

“Roa, for God’s sake,” Sinieka cursed, grabbing and pulling him back. “One day you’ll do that and the whole place will collapse on you.”

“Relax, will you?” Roa batted her hands from him. “Anyway, I found another one for your collection.” He bent down and pointed to some keys fastened to a key-chain with a faded photo of a young girl. Sinieka pulled it from beneath the dust. She shoved it in her pocket before any of the keys’ memories could flash before her eyes. Another member of the crew called out something about finding medication in tact as she thanked Roa. They made their way across the street and down the ruined block. Perhaps today these cement and steel skeletons would give up something worth selling at the markets. Keys were fine if you could read their memories, but they didn’t put food on the table.

 

Sinieka was careful not to touch any of the metal surfaces in the ruined clinic with her bare skin – a feat much easier said than done. She donned thick gloves as Marcus started handing her boxes of medicine, instruments, and dressings. They packed as much of the stuff into the bags they were carrying as they could. No one knew if more scavengers weren’t perhaps on their way right now. You had to grab what you could get as fast as possible in this post-war world.

 

“Marcus and I will stay behind tonight, the rest of you, get back to the ship. There’s too much still here to leave for some other crew. We cannot take the chance of just leaving it,” William, the leader of the crew said. “Roa, you lead them back.”

Roa saluted and shifted the bag on his shoulder. Sinieka also threw her bag over her shoulder and felt her knees buckle beneath the weight.

 

Outside the light was already fading and they hurried back to the safety of the ship.

“Stop!” Roa shouted and placed his bag on the ground. “Everyone, put your bags down and go to the ship.”

“Roa?”

“This is too good to be true, Sinieka, don’t you think? That whole clinic just sitting there for the taking?”

“Sometimes you’re lucky.”

“And sometimes it’s a trap.”

Sinieka placed her bag on the ground. It was a good six months’ wages that she was thinking of leaving behind.

“How will we know?”

“We won’t until we get everything tested. I say we leave it here until morning and then we get the team to come and test it.”

“When did you start believing the lies of the enemy, Roa?” Ger, another of the crew asked. His bag was stuffed and he was even carrying loot in his arms. “No one is out here setting traps. You take what you find, that is how life works. It is only you and Sinieka who still believe in fairy tales and good manners.”

“William put me in charge and I say we leave everything here until morning.”

“William is an idiot and my leg is still killing me from the bullet I took three months ago. Have you seen this?” Ger asked. “Morphine tablets, and they’re still good.”

“Just wait until tomorrow,” Roa pleaded.

“I think we should listen to Roa,” Sinieka said. “He’s been doing this a lot longer than any of us.”

“Fine,” Ger said. “But I’m keeping this,” he added, and shoved some of the tablets into his pocket breast. He sat his overstuffed bag down and strode back to the ship.

“Ger!” Roa called, but it was too late. Roa threw himself over Sinieka as the fake medication detonated, killing Ger instantly.

“Run!” Roa shouted, pulling Sinieka to her feet. She could hear the explosions behind her, the final one being the clinic, which crumbled to the ground. Her ears rang when she entered the ship and sank down crying. She was only half aware of the pain in her leg and arm and Roa clamping a bloody hand on her leg and trying to get her to focus.

 

It was nearly midnight when Sinieka limped to her bunk and took the small box from her chest of possessions. Inside lay more of the lost and forgotten keys she had found on their scavenger hunts. One bunch of keys was of her own home that had been utterly destroyed. She pulled the new set of keys from her pocket and, as she touched the toothed metal, memories sped through her. Visions of faces, locks, doors, and secret lives lived blinked and danced before her eyes. She laid back on her bunk and closed her eyes. The keys slipped through her fingers one by one.

The last key was her favourite. It was the key the woman held ready in the lock when she received the news of the evacuation. It had remained there as the woman grabbed her child and a bag of possessions. Perhaps they had been saved, after all, the keys simply an unnecessary item to take.

She took another, blank key from her pocket and imprinted upon it the memories of the day and of Marcus, William, and Ger. There were others like her, she knew. Others who could read metal and could read keys. Others who would one day know of Marcus, William, and Ger and how they had died. On the locket around her neck she knew the happenings of the day would also be imprinted. Her life was imprinted on that locket as others’ were on keys they carried with them. She touched her stomach. Perhaps her child would also have the same talent as her. She looked at the key again. If that happened, she thought, she would throw away this key. The child need not know that his or her father died crushed in a clinic. She would tell her child heroic stories of their lives as rescuers.

She lay down on the bed. That is what she would become now, she decided. Even if it meant leaving Roa and the others behind. Her child would not be a scavenger.

“How long till we reach the city?” Sinieka asked in the darkness.

“Three days. Now sleep,” Roa answered from his bunk.

Three days, Sinieka thought. Three days to a new life. She imprinted the hope of a new life on the locket.

***

This story was originally written for Patreon last year, but I have been wondering whether or not I should revisit this world – what do you think?